It was really a tale of two halves for Matt Ryan. After setting a rookie record for completions in a playoff game by the end of the first half, which was previously 20, he looked like a rookie for most of the second half.
He also got virtually no production out of his usually dominating running game that could only muster 60 yards. To his credit, he battled back through his mistakes and finished strong, but in the end it was too little, too late.
The Cardinals got an unexpected lift from their running game, as Edgerrin James went back to the form that made him the 11th all-time rusher in NFL history. The Cardinals truly won the battle in the trenches, as the offensive line kept Warner off his back and opened up some nice holes in the run game, while the defensive line was disruptive all day long and dominated the line of scrimmage.
This did not look like the Cardinals team that we are used to seeing, and I say that as a compliment. Usually this is a one-dimensional offense that relies exclusively on the passing game, but that was not the case today. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt rewarded Edgerrin James for his 100 yard performance in the season finale, by sticking with the run, and using it to control the clock.
I think the benching of James earlier in the season actually worked in his favor, as he looked fresh and seemed to have a jump in his step.
The Cardinals defense also came up huge in this game, forcing three turnovers and a safety. On the defensive line, end Bertrand Berry and tackle Darnell Dockett exerted their will on the Falcons’ offensive line. Ryan did not do a very good job with his snap count, as Cardinals defenders seemed to be almost a step ahead of opposing linemen on many plays.
This allowed the defense to disrupt many runs in the backfield, and force Ryan into quick decisions. The Cardinals were also disciplined in their assignments, and would not allow the Atlanta running backs to cut back, which is usually where the Falcons find so much success. Karlos Dansby seemed to get into the head of Michael Turner he was tackling him so much, and Adrian Wilson was stellar coming into the box and stuffing the run.
Both offenses got off to a shaky start and Matt Ryan even through a pick on his first series. It was the Cardinals that struck first, though, on a 42 yard TD catch by Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals did a good job of setting up, by running James three straight times, and then using the flea flicker to get the touchdown. Matt Ryan would get it going in the second quarter, however, going 7 for 7 on a drive that ended in a 30 yard field goal by Jason Elam.
The Cardinals would grab momentum back with the big play on their next drive, getting the crowd back into it. Anquan Boldin would catch a third down pass in the flat on third down, and take it 71 yards to the house, but during the run he aggravate his hamstring and not return. Matt Ryan would then answer with a touchdown drive of his own, and then Kurt Warner would be picked off, giving the Falcons the ball back deep in Cardinal territory.
The Falcons would take full advantage of the turnover, scoring a touchdown with only 23 seconds left in the first half, taking a17-14 lead into the locker room.
The second half couldn’t have started any worse for the Falcons, as Michael Turner coughed up the ball to Antrel Rolle, who took it back to the house. On their next drive, the Cardinals lucked out when they were awarded a timeout just before the snap, while the play was going to go for big yardage.
Penalties forced the Falcons to punt out of their endzone, and a personal foul on the return would give the Cards even better field position, but they could not capitalize on it. After a couple three and outs, the Cardinals went on a well balanced drive that resulted in a Tim Hightower touchdown run. Matt Ryan was then a victim of trying to do too much, as he hung up a deep ball too long that was picked off by rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Ryan’s defense would bail him out, but Ryan would make another mistake in the fourth quarter, when he hung onto the ball for too long, and was sacked in his own endzone for a safety. The defense would bail him out yet again, and finally Ryan would get it going with a key fourth down conversion, which was the Falcons first 1st down of the half. Ryan would lead his team down the field for a touchdown that would put the Falcons within 6.
All the Falcons’ defense needed to do was get one more stop to give ‘Matty Ice’ a chance to win the game for them. It looked like they were going to get it too, but veteran LB Keith Brooking made a crucial error in coverage which sealed the game. On third and sixteen Brooking decided to jump a short route, and tight end would get behind him who Warner hit for the first down. Why Brooking decided to jump the route on third and sixteen is beyond me, but he will certainly not be the most popular player when he gets back to Atlanta.
The third down conversion came at the two minute conversion, and with the Falcons having no timeouts left, the Cardinals were able to take a knee to ice the game. The Cardinals will wait to see whether they will travel to Carolina, or New York for next weeks’ divisional game. If the Vikings win, the Cardinals go to New York to face the Giants, but if Philadelphia wins, the Cardinals will face Carolina in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the Falcons are sent home, but can still find many positives in what was a surprise season.